Cambodia Gold Mine News Prompts Pollution Concerns

Villagers cite earlier cases of injuries and deaths of humans and livestock caused by polluted water sources.
2021-06-15
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Cambodia Gold Mine News Prompts Pollution Concerns A river polluted by toxic run-off from a gold mine in Cambodia is shown in a file photo.
AP

News that an industrial-scale gold mine will launch operations this month in eastern Cambodia’s Mondulkiri province has raised local fears in a region already hit by widespread pollution from toxic waste, sources say.

In a June 10 statement, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen announced that Australian-owned Renaissance Minerals will begin manufacturing gold in Mondulkiri starting June 21, producing an average of three tonnes of pure gold per year in its first eight years of operation.

Cambodia is expected to generate gross revenue of $185 million per year from the project, with an estimated $40 million in excise and other taxes going each year into the national treasury to be used for “the development of the nation’s economy and society,” Hun Sen said.

Indigenous people living in Mondukiri are urging government authorities to be cautious in granting concessions for mining in the province, though, citing a May 2018 incident in which hundreds of villagers were sickened and more than a dozen killed when toxic substances including cyanide used to flush gold mines were improperly handled and seeped into a local river. Hundreds of cattle also died.

Rong Cheng, a Chinese-owned company located in Mondulkiri’s Keo Seima district and still in operation, was among the companies blamed for the pollution, sources told RFA in earlier reports.

Speaking to RFA on June 14, Roeung Phlom—a member of Mondulkiri’s Phnong ethnic minority community network—said that Cambodia’s government should carry out thorough studies before allowing companies to mine in the province.

“I request the government to conduct proper studies and research so that mining will not affect local residents with regard to their water consumption or the natural resources in the forest that people rely on,” Roeung Phlom said.

“In the past, mining operations have resulted in landslides, and people were poisoned by drinking water that was poisoned by waste from the gold mines,” she said.

“The government should guarantee there will be no polluting of the soil or air.”

Roads blocked, sanctuaries threatened

Some of the mining companies invested in Mondulkiri have now blocked key roads in the Keo Seima district, creating obstacles to traffic, Kroeung Tola—an advisor to the Phnong ethnic community network—said, also speaking to RFA.

Areas now being explored for minerals also lie between the Keo Seima wildlife sanctuary and the Phnom Penh wildlife sanctuary, posing possible hazards to wild elephants and other animals in their own habitat and natural surroundings, Kroeung Tola said.

Mining companies and Cambodian authorities should release social and environmental impact assessments for projects to the public, and should allow local residents to take part in decision-making processes, he said.

“The government should take stringent measures rather than intermittent ones and should form specific plans, because these things affect local livelihoods,” Kroeung Tola said, adding, “I remain concerned over the safety and health of our local people.”

Attempts to reach Sorn Sarom, spokesperson for Mondulkiri province, and Svay Sam Eang, provincial governor, were unsuccessful on June 14.

Svay Sam Eang has said in the past that gold mining investments will create more revenue for the country’s economy and for Mondulkiri, and that two companies in particular—the Chinese-owned Rong Cheng and Australian–owned Renaissance Minerals—have helped build wells, hospitals, roads, and bridges in the province.

Call for transparency

Cambodia’s government should be transparent in its handling of revenue from the mining industry, though, said Heng Kimhong, program manager for research and advocacy for the Cambodia Youth Network.

“The government should release information to the public so that people know how much revenue, either from taxes or excise or from its own investment sharing, is being generated by the mining industry, Heng Kimhong said.

Environmental activists have voiced doubt over Hun Sen’s description of the Renaissance Minerals deal as a “victory” for Cambodia’s gold mining industry, though, saying his June 10 announcement closely followed the news that KrisEnergy—a Singapore-based oil company with projects in Cambodia—had gone bankrupt, embarrassing the government.

Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, founder of the local environmental group Mother Nature, called Hun Sen’s announcement on the Renaissance Minerals deal an attempt to divert attention from the collapse of KrisEnergy, with which the government had partnered to produce oil from Cambodia’s offshore reserves.

“This could be a tactic by the Hun Sen regime after experiencing such a major embarrassment over its offshore oil production. Hun Sen’s government is trying to divert public attention now by focusing on its gold mining industry,” Gonzalez-Davidson said.

Reported and translated for RFA’s Khmer Service by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Richard Finney.

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